My Lessons from Working Remotely

In the current era of COVID-19, it seems many of us are new to working remotely. For a variety of reasons, many had not yet the opportunity to work remotely or were not given the option. Below is a blog post I wrote about a year ago to submit to publication that ended up not needing the article. Stay safe, wash your hands, and stay productive.

Working from anyplace in the world once seemed like a dream that only rich executives somehow took advantage of, but with the portability of laptops and tablets plus the expanded reach of the internet around the world, the files are no longer in the briefcase, but in the cloud.

In my career, I’ve have had various opportunities to work remotely. My longest stint being the time I worked for myself full-time, which lasted almost 3 years. Having a great amount of time and freedom along with the opportunity to figure out what works and what doesn’t work for me, my career has brought me to a place where I believe working in a fully remote capacity sometime soon, again, on a permanent basis, is my next career goal. Here’s why…

The Skinny Detail

Think about this with as much detail as you can consider for your own work-life:

I wear what I want, work when I want, sleep when I want, work long for extended periods of time when I want or need to, I rest and consider problems with the ease I need, I communicate when I need to communicate, take long lunches when I want, jam my music however loud or softly, and, of course, work from anywhere that the internet is working well enough for me to easily connect to all of my tools at a single moment. I am flexible all the time, even when I need to not be.

Now, some of this available and when I accomplish the work is based on me being able to set my own time, and not all remote jobs work this way. But ultimately, I’ve learned that working remotely isn’t just about where you are, it is about who you are. It isn’t about goofing off, you still have the freedom to do so when work is finished because in the end work still must be accomplished in a productive manner. In fact, working remotely is taking on even more responsibility for yourself, your team (if you manage people or not) and what your job entails, which tends to bring about or further cement a great deal of maturity within yourself. A large level of trust is being set on your shoulders and, naturally, if you break it, it is a big deal.

There are a ton of articles out there talking about various tools or personal ways to adapt to working remotely. Which one is right for you is not always your choice, but it is possible to find the best path. When it comes to tools, my best advice is to find tools that work for you and the majority of who works with you. Be flexible.

Look, tools are a dime a dozen. I am one of those who are in love with Slack, but Microsoft Teams is pretty good too. If you are a contractor, I would suggest that you gain experience with multiple work/project/time management tools – these will change all the time and while you’ll develop your favorites, part of the position you are carving out for yourself in the world of working remotely is how easily you can adapt. Knowing project/product management methods as a baseline will give you a great understanding ahead of the curve to be adaptive to your team or client, but being able to jump right in with their workflow is huge.

For those working remotely for a company, most of the time you don’t have a lot of choices because your employer has this sort of thing figured out. If you are a freelancer, I would advise you to align yourself with things that are generally what the majority use. That isn’t to say stick to that old MSN Messenger because you loved the emoticons, but having a working knowledge of most of the popular communication tools. Similar to my comment about project management systems, Google Hangouts and Slack have been the main ones I’ve used, with Slack being the best, and personally Google/Slack tends to work out well in the technology and marketing world, but since someone can’t dial your extension from across the office or walkover, you need to remove the barriers of communication during with your daily work.

The rest of the world is, in my opinion, aligned in the past, and uses Office 365 w/ Outlook and Teams, and well, if that’s what they use, it isn’t as bad as it once was. Explore as you wish, but try not to pick tools that are super small/new or random. You can be on the bleeding edge, but that doesn’t always look like a good thing to clients or employers. You could be perceived as harder to work with because you have a special (read: difficult) way of communicating. That gets frustrating and will draw people to be “hunting you down” to communicate, which produces neutral/negative feelings. Be glad if you find a company or client who loves to be on that edge of innovation – but most won’t.

Communication is more than apps

Throughout my career, I have used so many different communication services/software, I’ve learned how to understand the different levels of communication. The bullet points below illustrate how I’ve come to understand these levels, but keep in mind this is evolving all the time.

  • Slack is for everyday conversation and working through an issue. Its everyday chatter to real conversations that aren’t super serious. A lot of work can be accomplished if your Slack channels are setup for success.
  • Google Hangouts is for video meetings and verbal conversations that are needed in better real-time (especially HR-like or serious conversations). Zoom is great for sharing your screen when you need to and is getting better all the time. Gone are the days of clunky GoToMeeting, though you might still find them in place of Zoom. (Especially in more corporate-like businesses.)
  • Email is a soft touch and normally is both project load, files containing, or long-form needs that aren’t always immediate like Slack communication is. (Many old school folks see this as how they only want to communicate. Don’t try to change them…it won’t work. You need some good reading comprehension working with email solely in today’s age, so I would suggest becoming acclimated to following chat-like email threads and folder organization might be something to consider.)
  • Phone calls are probably the last resort, but again video Hangouts could substitute here if you are chatting overseas, but it isn’t always a convenient method and you just need to get on the phone. Don’t forget your phone voice needs to be awake regardless of using Hangouts or the actual phone.

I can’t emphasize this enough; regardless of how your company or client thinks, be flexible and know that while the above might be how I or you perceive them, though often are the case, not everyone will fall in each category exactly and you must be willing to adapt more than a full-time, in-office job. Working remotely provides the opportunity for you to often control when you work, depending on your role and position, but that doesn’t mean communication does not still happen within that gap of not working and doing the work.

Consider this: When you are given a task interpersonally, you know “IRL…in real life,” you acknowledge it and you go to work. Body language, nods, short responses, etc. are absorbed by your superior or subordinates, if you are the one giving the direction, and for that moment the communication window closes so you may work. When directives are sent digitally, there often needs more than a “digital nod” or “okay”, unless a lot of rapport is built up. This is especially true if you are working with folks that aren’t as good at communication, yet or generally, or when you have a team that is a mixture of working remotely and in an office. You’ll find that there seems to always be an issue in mixed circumstances and often it is one team member that seems to always break the line of communication because others are in the office. Luckily I am seeing this less and less, so keep in mind that this idea of working remotely is relatively new to the common business.

In some cases, over or under communicating is a dance that you have to master based on who you work with. I tend to be an “almost over-communicator.” I give acknowledgments more digitally than I would in person and I speak directly and clearly more than I do in person. I try to hide from passive aggression and tend to be educational with my explanations or justifications, more than I would interpersonally. I also work harder to align myself within the parameters of the team by being specific about how I work with everyone. I don’t want to ever be the one who just responds “okay” or “cool” to things and I also want to pick my battles when it comes to communication issues.

Break Away

Disconnecting from work is good. You need to because you aren’t just leaving the office for the day, physically – you need to leave the office mentally, too. No matter where the office is, your computer at home or at the coffee shop, don’t forget you probably have at least email and Slack on your phone, too. And not replying to emails or Slack messages all day and night is a good thing. I am honest when I say that I, and I’m sure you as well, that we rarely stop ourselves, so with working remotely, you’ll have to work harder at this.

To put it bluntly, you are trying to avoid burn out. Despite what many say, you do need to set office hours, if you cannot maintain a level of separation for yourself. If anything, these hours are set to give comfort and availability for you to connect with your team or to give the ability for your team to know when they can get a hold of you no matter what. Don’t make meetings the only time your team can find you. Keep your shared Calendar updated at all times and make sure when new team members are added that you send them invites. (Depending on your system, this may not be automatic.)

Make the calendar gospel. Communicate how much it is gospel and don’t let co-workers/management/clients begin to feel like they must question it. This might seem small to you, but it can grow into a real problem as time goes on.

Open Your Mind and Consider

Headspace is a great part of working remotely. To be able to think and meditate on thoughts, both in the potential spiritual ways, but moreover in the general “I’m trying to figure this out without distraction” sort of ways. I’ve found I have more focus than ever when I work remotely; often, my solutions to problems are even more focused and planned out.

When I started working in offices, I have had no real way to block noise. If they were noisy or quiet based on who was there, it wasn’t as much of a distraction but it did lead to extra conversations and non-work related goofing off, on occasion. Some of the early offices I worked in had a radio playing softly, but it was rare to be allowed to bring in your CD player or iPod, let alone add music or podcasts to your work desktop computer.

Today, most modern offices let you bring headphones or earbuds in with you, but there are times when you need to let your ears rest, but unfortunately with open concept offices or shared office situations, this not often the case. The idea of “focus pods” is still a new idea outside of Silicon Valley and so with working remotely, especially when you are at home, you can find yourself with the opportunity for thinking and considering needs in a larger headspace.

Even if you are actually on a beach in the Cayman Islands, at an internet cafe in Vietnam or the coffee shop down the street from you, generally you don’t always have the amount of noise or personal distractions around you. You’ll need to take this into account as you plan out where you’ll office out of; what noise can you endure or do you need? Some need it for white noise. I can’t tell you which is best for you, however.

For me, I find myself working even harder to plan out my day or my “head.” I find time in my day where I don’t want to be disturbed because I need to focus on a piece of work or I need to think through some ideas. Some people are sketch pad or whiteboard type of people, or perhaps empty Word document writers, where you physically go through an idea or problem. Whichever type of person you are, this is the type of headspace you need undisturbed no matter what you do or where you are. It is work done outside of production and is focused on arranging and working through thoughts.

In short, you have to find it no matter whether you work remotely or not!

As a side note, maybe meditation is something you can do, too! I’m not saying “let’s get spiritual” but if that’s your bag, go for it. Take 10-15 minutes to align your thoughts in a simple form then take the rest of your headspace time and go through a problem. Start your day this way or perhaps after that first-meeting-of-the morning. Remember, you work remotely in a solo manner because this is the best way you work or is best for the work you do. Take advantage and get your head right for work and otherwise!

In-Person is Still Important

If you work remotely and your team isn’t in your city, state/province or even country, it should be mandatory that you meet them in real life at some point, since regularity may not be possible. Some might think I am taking this a little far to say it’s required, but I really believe if you’ve been working with people remotely for a time that it really helps the working relationship.

I live in the USA but I’ve worked with people in Thailand, Egypt, Ukraine, England, Australia, Japan, Italy, Greece, Trinidad, and others. I have a family with two kids so traveling to see any of these folks isn’t really feasible at this time. But where it is easy, I have taken an opportunity and explored another part of the country on top of a meeting with who I work with. (As of yet, I have not personally met anyone outside of the USA that I’ve worked with.)

Is your team nearby? Again, even if they aren’t, go have coffee, happy hour or a meal together. If there is an office, work out of their office, if you can and it is not someones house. Even if it is only once a year. This will help grow your connection to the team and also help develop a further rapport with leadership. Your connection with co-workers can’t always be done via the digital, even with the #general or #random Slack channels, interpersonal is the way we were born to connect and is the most natural, for the majority of us.

Remote is the best (for me)

Truly, I love working remotely. I feel like I am the best self in my career and produce the best work when I work remotely. I have a need to not feel tied down by decor I don’t care for or being bothered by people who have no effect on the work I do. (I might be introverted, too…) Most especially, I like being able to choose my schedule and accomplish what is needed when I can and as quickly or sporadically as I wish.

But, I do know this isn’t for everyone. It takes time to figure out if this is for you. And in today’s world, you may find huge comfort in the in-person interactions and actual water cooler talk. You might like having a commute and being needed in a physical work way. That’s awesome! You should know that about yourself.

Maybe you’ll get to test drive working remotely someday. I’d also encourage you to try working remotely if you have the opportunity. You might find something about yourself; even more than “hey, this is great.”

Remote work is the greatest freedom for me to accomplish my career and work goals by allowing me to be me.

Do you know what is best for you? Only one way to find out!